I recently watched the original Japanese ‘Godzilla’ back to back with its re-edited American counterpart (a hilarious exercise in shoehorning a character in). If you’ve never seen either I recommend the Japanese version, though both are currently available on Netflix Instant.
Later Godzilla films ditched serious reflection for more model-scale smashing and rubber suit fights, but the original is a melancholy rumination on the horrors atomic weapons wreak, made by a country still reeling from their own terrible experience. It’s surprising how well the original effects hold up; sure, it’s easy to tell when Godzilla’s just a hand puppet, but he’s always matted in neatly and the scale models destroyed look realistic, at least enough to charm. The audio work is also striking; given the limitations of physical editing in 1954, when mixing audible dialogue and basic background noise was challenging enough, the sound engineers managed to create a unique sound and ominous presence for Godzilla through audio alone. In an excerpt from “Japan’s Favorite Mon-star: the Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G”, Steve Ryfle explains the insanely ridiculous recording process:
“The audio technology utilized in Godzilla was less than primitive. The optical recording equipment had only four audio tracks, and of those, one was used for the principal dialogue, one for the background chatter, ambient noise, and the sounds of tanks and planes and one for Godzilla’s roar and footsteps (these effects were so loud they required an independent track to avoid bleeding over the music and other audio). That left only one track for the music and the crashing sounds of Godzilla’s destruction.
Unbelievable as it sounds today, the musical score and the foley (mechanical) sound effects of Godzilla’s final, wanton rampage through Tokyo were recorded live, at the same time. At the recording session, Ifukube conducted the NHK Philharmonic orchestra while a foley artist watched Godzilla’s attack projected on a movie screen, using pieces of tin, concrete debris, wood and other materials to simulate the sounds of the monster walking through buildings. It was a precarious process – -if the foley artist missed a cue even slightly, a new take would be needed for the entire scene, but somehow it resulted in a seamless work of discord.”
THEY RECORDED THE FOLEY AND ORCHESTRA LIVE TOGETHER. The ONLY time I’ve seen that done was as part of a live screening of Guy Maddin’s ‘Brand Upon The Brain!’, and even then that was performance art, NOT studio necessity. Today digital editing makes slapping together and mixing down 20 tracks a piece of cake, but back then you got creative or it didn’t happen. And what of Godzilla’s roar itself? As opposed to something like ‘Jurassic Park’s dinosaur sounds, which were an amalgam of existing animal noises, Ichiro Mitsunawa (‘Godzilla’s sound-effects man) wanted something more unreal:
“Ishiro Honda came up with the idea that Godzilla should roar, regardless of the fact that reptiles do not have vocal chords, with this rationale: “Godzilla underwent some mutation. He is beyond our imagination.” Sound recordist Hisashi Shimonaga and sound-effects man Ichiro Mitsunawa were put in charge of creating the monster’s roar, but Ifukube immediately took an interest in devising sound effects for the film and became involved in the process. “From our first meeting together, I already sensed what an amazing musician he [Ifukube] was,” Honda said. “He asked us what certain special sound effects we were going to use in certain parts of the movie, and about all kinds of details concerning the sound.”
Mitsunawa started out by recording the roars of lions, tigers, condors and other birds and zoo animals, then playing them back at various speeds (the original King Kong roar was created the same way), but none of these proved satisfactory. Eventually, someone hit upon the idea of using a contrabass (double bass), one of the lowest-pitched string musical instruments in existence. Ifukube arranged to borrow a contrabass from the prestigious Japan Art University’s music department, and the roar was created by loosening the instrument’s strings and rubbing them with a leather glove. The sound was recorded and then played back at reduced speed, resulting in the melancholy, ear-splitting cry of the original Godzilla. This technique became Toho’s standard method for creating monster roars for years to come (Godzilla’s cry, however, would be sped up and changed to a high-pitched whine in the 1960′s and 70′s films); today, monster roars are recorded digitally.
Conflicting stories exist as to how the ominous sound of Godzilla’s footsteps was created. Legend has it that a Japanese kettle drum was struck with a knotted rope, and the sound was recorded and processed through an echo box; Akira Ifukube, in an interview with Cult Movies, said the footsteps were created with a primitive amplifier that emitted a loud clap when struck, designed by a Toho sound engineer. But several Japanese texts reveal the footsteps were actually the “BOOM!” of a recorded explosion with the “OOM!” clipped off at the end and processed through an electronic reverb unit, producing a sound resembling a gigantic bass drum – or a monster’s foot crashing down on the Tokyo pavement.”
The amount of creativity and work that goes into good sound and foley design deserves more glowing recognition, but because the best stuff seamlessly adds to the viewer’s experience, it’s easy to overlook.